Introduction/first notes into the PhD research project:
Growing up in the Thuringian Forest (a mountain/forest area in East Germany), I am most familiar with the forest as a natural space. When I think about my relationship to the forest, it is part of me and yet an entity outside my everyday life. As a growing-up, the forest was an adventure playground for me. We tried to decipher the secret language we found in the bark of the trees, built huts, and played hide and seek. I had my first kiss in the forest, I secretly smoked my first cigarette in the forest – the forest was the place where the adults were not. The fairy tales and stories we heard as children were set in the forest, songs we sang at school were about the forest, the forest was omnipresent. I have spent many hours and days through all the different seasons in the woods; behind every bend, I know what is hidden behind it, at every fork in the road, I know where the respective path leads me, and yet I often feel like a foreign body when I‘m here, like something that shouldn‘t be present, something which is disturbing this place.
Being here, being in the forest, makes me realize I’m surrounded by a language I don’t speak.
More than a decade later, since I left my hometown to study and live in bigger cities, I’m returning to start my PhD-research. I have changed and the forest has changed.
I am standing on a 60 cm thick layer of spruce brushwood. The entire ground within the precisely measured, geometrically demarcated area, which encompasses the deforested piece of forest on which I find myself, is covered with this layer. There are huge naked spruce trunks, cut apart, scattered over the ground. Their bark is partially detached and has formed intertwined spirals that turn on their axis when you pick them up. The porous tree skin I’m holding in my hand appears fibrous, like a thick textile layer of flax.
It is not easy to walk over all the cut brushwood, almost like climbing. On top of the thick layer of needles, branches, and twigs, large tire tracks of a forestry machine can be seen. How strong must this machine be to make its way over this thick layer? The sun is shining, there are hardly any clouds in the sky, it is late October and 19 degrees at an altitude of 764 m above zero. After a bit of climbing, I sit down on a log, lying on a pile of other trees that have fallen on top of each other like Mikado sticks. Slowly I turn my head in all directions.
I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. The freshly cut wood and the thousands of brushwood branches emit their scent. I try to listen. What I perceive is mainly the wind in the crowns of the spruce trees, which grow thin and straight around the cleared piece of forest and stretch towards the sky. The wind in the treetops is loud, almost deafening. As the spruces sway from side to side, they seem to have no support in the ground. As if they suspect that they too will soon be felled – bark beetles certainly do not stop at the boundaries within the forests that have been measured by the foresters and approved by the forest owners.
I unpack my recording device, connect the microphone, and put on my headphones. My perception changes. Suddenly I hear a bird that I would not have noticed without the amplification of the microphone. The rustling of the leaves of felled branches, the collateral damage of clear-cutting, sounds crisp and clear to my ears – but above all, the roaring wind can be heard sweeping through the spruces around the deforested site.
Recording the sound of the wind in the nearby treetops is like listening to a soon-to-be-gone environment.
I’m thinking of all the critters and organisms buried under the thick layer of brushwood. While the wind is howling and the sound of planes is crossing my perception, they remain silent. It’s like I’m listening to an environmental testimony. A testimony about the disappearance of the forest in itself.
The sound of the wind shifts my memory to the last time a large part of my hometown’s forest was destroyed.
15 years ago, between 18 and 19 January 2007, the winter storm Kyrill sweeps through Europe. On the night of 19 January, it hits Ilmenau with full force and destroys large parts of the Thuringian Forest. It is the same evening – after laying on the deathbed for several weeks – that my grandfather dies. I remember sitting alone at home, my parents were together with my aunts and uncles at my grandparent’s place, and the wind was rattling the windows and shingles of our house. The howling of Kyrill is still in my ears today, along with the memories of my grandfather. The following day, as I walk to school, I can hardly believe my eyes, but the entire forest on the side of the Lindenberg facing the city, Ilmenau’s local mountain, has disappeared. The storm had knocked down the trees as if they were matchsticks. For several days and weeks, a gloom settles over our town, over the destroyed forest, over the damaged houses, roofs, and streets. And then there is the very personal grief of our family.
My grandmother says she still thinks back to that night whenever she can hear the wind. And it is the same for many; the sound of the wind has become engraved in our collective consciousness and is linked to personal memories of that night.
Listening reminds us that our bodies are always collective and historical.
Kyrill passed, but the forest is still disappearing. Caused by the hot, dry summers and mild winters that make the spruce monocultures of the Thuringian Forest so vulnerable to the bark beetle. The forester of Ilmenau tells me that he and his staff cannot keep up with the felling of infested trees and the urgent reforestation.
And the ever-increasing bare areas make the forest more easily damaged by storms again. The wind howls through the spruce treetops, heralding an even faster disappearance.
The forest is saturated with memories, and these knots of memories still hold that place together in our imagination. It is the image of a long-grown, deep-rooted forest that has always defined the community’s identity in this region. But when I sit on these felled tree trunks, I think that this ancient forest from our imagination never existed in this form. A forest is a constantly changing, moving entity in itself, which is subject to constant human-induced changes, mainly due to the need for resources, greed for profit, and claims to ownership. After the Second World War, during which large parts of the German forests were burnt up in the armaments industry and thus disappeared, mainly fast-growing spruces were planted in order to quickly have a profitable forest again. It is these monocultures that constitute the Thuringian and other forests and that are so susceptible to disease, beetle infestation, and drought. And yet, these monocultures are, of course, living organisms. And I wonder, what are the memories of these trees, animals, plants, insects, and fungi?